Like the majority of hip-hop artists in the current climate, Kanye West doesn’t live in the real world, or one that any of us would recognise. And like his colleagues, he is faced with the challenge of not only keeping it real, but which reality to reference. That problem, however, has rapidly faded as West has lost his mother and seen his long term relationship crumble. Suddenly, the shadows are creeping into Kanye West’s world. It shows. This is a very different record to what has gone before, on every level. The most obvious change is that it sounds different. Boy does it sound different.
Much has been made of his use of autotune (last heard on Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s memorable -Monkey Love’) but it is all over 808s & Heartbreaks. The opening seconds of -Say You Will’ set the whole tone. There are no beats, no rapping, no bravado. In their place sit bleeps, computerised vocals and introspection. It’s all very weird and, you feel, likely to get quite annoying over the course of a whole album. Indeed, there is every chance that some will give this one listen, discover there’s no -Gold-Digger’ Mk II and never let it trouble them again. Let them go. We have no need for them here.
What 808s & Heartbreaks does require is some work on the listener’s behalf. You have to accept the fact that this weird vocal effect is what the album is about and any raps that do appear come from guests rather than West himself. The beats are predominantly provided by the TR808-created tribal drumming, powerful but hard to bounce to. It is by no means a hip-hop record, described by West instead as pop art. There is an overwhelming pattern to the record and often you do fi nd yourself wishing for slight deviations. Thankfully, they do appear, whether it be the Dr Dre staccato beat on -Heartless’ or the downright weirdness of -Robocop’. West is taking chances, but that would seem to be the overall aim.
The lyrics provide the second half of the record’s title. Sadness and longing fill the tracks, from ‘My friend showed me pictures of his kids and all I could show him were pictures of my cribs’ to ‘If spring can take the snow away, can it melt away all our mistakes?’ This is not a window on a world of cars, girls and diamonds. It’s dark too, painting a picture of someone not above petty vengeance. This Kanye seeks his revenge, not through acts of macho posturing, but through sly digs and put-downs. ‘Tell everybody that you know that I don’t love you no more’, he sneers on -See You In My Nightmare’, before Lil’ Wayne weighs in with a bizarre turn on the mic.
What we’re left with is probably the most downright strange record of the year, certainly in terms of what the artist has to lose. It makes Coldplay’s grand experiment look like a set of Keane covers. It doesn’t work all the time (-Paranoid’ sounds like a mash up of -American Boy’ and Van Halen’s -Jump’), but then again, how could it? At its best, though, 808s & Heartbreaks is a record of beauty, heart and courage, a million miles away from 50 Cent, T-Pain and the rest of the bozo-hop community. Where the hell does Kanye West go next? He is, in his own words, ‘a problem that will never be solved’. Amen to that.
Illustration by Shauna McGowan